Aaron Judge Is Hitting Better with an Even Worse Strike Zone

We know the Aaron Judge story. He was a prospect whose contact ability was questioned. Would his 80-grade power play in games? After working on a swing adjustment in the winter of 2016-17, however, he dramatically improved his contact rate, posting a remarkable 173 wRC+ last season while nearly winning the AL MVP award.

In the 21st century, there have been only 31 completed or ongoing seasons with a wRC+ better than Judge’s mark. And what’s remarkable is that one of those — though, just a partial season — is Judge’s 2018 campaign, in which he has a wRC+ of 178.

After making one of the most dramatic year-to-year improvements in major-league history, Judge has actually improved through the first quarter of this season, which is amazing in a different way. While making gains is one thing, consolidating them is another, with the wealth of scouting information available.

Some of the improvements are subtle. Judge is swinging and missing slightly less often, and he’s chasing out of zone slightly less often, as we can see in the following charts. His overall swing rate is down.

Here’s Judge’s swings by frequency and location in 2016:

And 2017:

And 2018:

More and more, he’s laying off the low pitch. Opponents throw him few pitches in the zone — Judge has the seventh-lowest zone rate in baseball — and he’s better and better at not chasing as his walk rate approaches 20%. His strikeout rate is now just below 30% (28.8%).

Other changes are more dramatic.

One of the few things Judge did not do well last year is hit sliders. Judge recorded a .149 batting average and .276 slugging percentage against the pitch. This year? Judge has a .400 average and a .633 slugging mark against sliders, which has been the second-most frequent pitch thrown his way (184 pitches) after four-seam fastballs (243). Judge is hitting .303 or better against sliders, curveballs, sinkers, and four-seam fastballs. Only changeups and cutters are giving him some trouble. Judge is tightening up his zone and might have erased one of his pitch-type weaknesses.

If he’s shortened up his actual swing, it’s not noticeable, as his exit velocity has increased and again leads baseball at 96.5 mph average. Judge is making improvements without sacrificing power. Whether intentional or not, Judge’s pull rate has dropped from 41% to 36%. He appears to be more comfortable in using the whole field, which should be further promoted given the right-field dimensions of Yankee Stadium.

And Judge still has something working against him which makes his start even more impressive: the strike zone.

Due to his size — Judge is the largest position player in the majors — there appears be a bias against him in the lower part of the zone. What are strikes at the knees for most batters ought to be balls for Judge. But the game is not being called that way. Judge leads the league in low borderline pitches and pitches below the zone being called as strikes with 72. The next closest player is Justin Bour at 54.

Judge has seen 160 pitches in the borderline, 50-50 area at the bottom of the zone (according to Baseball Savant’s detailed zone) and 71 have been called as strikes, for a 44.3% strike rate. The league average is 22.8%.

When I detailed this issue almost a calendar year ago, 41% of such located pitches were being called strikes against Judge compared to a 24.3% league-wide average, according to Statcast data via Baseball Savant. So umpires are not doing any better at judging Judge’s strike zone, assuming the Savant adjusted zone is fairly accurate.

As for the total borderline zone, Judge has had strikes called there at a 32.5% rate compared to an MLB average of 23.1%. (Judge has had balls called there at a 25.3% rate, in line with the MLB ball rate of 25.2% in those zones.)

Imagine if Judge had Jose Altuve’s strike zone? Pitchers have thrown Altuve 62 pitches in the borderline lower portion of the zone and only four have been called for strikes. Overall, Altuve has strikes called in the total borderline area around the zone at a 21.6% rate. (The ball rate in that zone is 19.6% for Altuve, who has a higher swing rate.)

It’s not likely that strike zone bias was part of MVP voting decisions last year, but maybe it should have been.

The lone black mark on Judge’s resume? His clutch performance. After ranking as the worst clutch hitter in baseball last season — perhaps that played a role in the AL MVP race — he ranks as the sixth-worst clutch hitter amongst qualified hitters. (Clutch essentially measures how well a player performs in high-leverage situations compared to his baseline level.)

That said, there’s not much to nitpick with Judge. There is much at which to marvel, though, as few players have made such dramatic gains. And now he is consolidating them and building upon them. Judge is getting better even with forces working against him.

A Cleveland native, FanGraphs writer Travis Sawchik is the author of the New York Times bestselling book, Big Data Baseball. He also contributes to The Athletic Cleveland, and has written for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Sawchik.

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5 years ago

I’ve been looking for this article for ages, so thank you so very much for it.

The zone has gotten progressively worse for him over his career, and it really is a strong indictment against umpiring. This is the home plate umpire’s primary job (We have replay for plays at the plate.), and it allows them to control the game. Honestly, I cannot think of worse strike calling than I’ve seen the last few years, and something needs to give.

5 years ago
Reply to  insidb

The weird thing is that the results support the argument that the umpires are more calling their own strike zone than one that actually responds to each batter. Granted, it must be hard to see a pitch come in which you have called a strike a million times come in and not call it simply because Judge is monstrous.

5 years ago
Reply to  SucramRenrut

Excellent point: I said on some other thread that it’s hard to discern if it’s better for the Yanks to have Judge and Stanton back-to-back or break them up.

Does it throw the pitcher off, but cause the umps to miss more pitches? Does it help the ump to call a consistent zone that gives the hitters surety?

The data will likely exist after this season, but the lack of a digital zone creates so much uncertainty.